The most salient feature of Poland’s topography is the extensive plain that stretches from the Baltic Sea in the north to the Carpathian Mountains to the south. Unfortunately for Poland, that plain served as the gateway for invasion—from Europe at the western borders and from Asia to the east. Poland also had the inconvenience to lie between Germany and Russia, who (for more than a millennium) cast covetous eyes on its rich lands and resources. Despite this, Poland managed to hold its own, and was once itself the biggest bully on the block. According to semi-legendary accounts, Mieszko ruled the Polanie tribe from the fortified settlement of Gniezno. When marauding Magyars threatened the Wislanie tribe of Krakow, with whom Mieszko had close ties, he united both tribes—and in doing so, founded the Piast Dynasty. Mieszko converted to Christianity after Roman Catholic missionaries from Bohemia preached the spiritual and practical benefits, and was baptized in 966. Despite some debate, even most skeptical scholars now accept this date as the beginning of Poland.
A series of strong (or strong-arm) successors to Mieszko slowly converted the pagan Poles, established a firm dynastic grip, and dragged reluctant Poland into the broader European culture. Mieszko's son Boleslaw established a purely Polish-Catholic ecclesiastical organization, and his secular authority was recognized by the Germanic Holy Roman Emperor. This led to Boleslaw’s coronation in 1025, making him the first "King of Poland."
Poland soon stretched from the Baltic to the Carpathians, loosely establishing its historical borders by 1100. However, the death of Boleslaw III in 1138 brought complications to the century-old kingdom. With no tradition of primogeniture, Poland was divided among Boleslaw's several sons. The resulting fragmentation led to continuous internal conflict and external pressures throughout the next few centuries.
Wladyslaw, a minor duke of Piast lineage, spent his life reunifying the realm and was crowned King Wladyslaw I for his troubles. In defending Poland, Wladyslaw waged crusades against the pagan Lithuanians and Mongols, as well as a war to expel the self-righteous and greedy Teutonic Knights. Wladyslaw was succeeded by his even more able son, who began his reign as Casimir III and ended it as Casimir the Great. He would not only secure his father’s gains through astute diplomacy and brief, victorious warfare, but make Poland a center of culture, learning, and trade. Casimir more than doubled the size of the kingdom, reorganized the nation's economy and legal system, and provided the impetus for the establishment of Poland’s first university. Under Casimir’s liberal rule, Poland became a haven for the dispossessed and persecuted; Germans settled in the cities, Armenian and Slavic refugees in the rural lowlands, and thousands of Jews moved in and flourished. However, having no male heirs, Casimir the Great was the last Piast king, dying in 1370.
Casimir's designated successor was his nephew Louis I of Hungary (where Louis spent most of his time). His death in 1382 resulted in the recalcitrant Polish nobles crowning his youngest daughter Jadwiga king of Poland. Her marriage to Jogaila, the Grand Duke of Lithuania, also made him a Polish king—after he converted to Catholicism and took the good Polish name Wladyslaw II. The two co-kings ruled until her death in 1399, when it became far less confusing to deliver messages to the (sole) King of Poland.
Wladyslaw II brought the Poles into the conflict in 1401. They came to the aid of the Lithuanians, who were locked in a vicious war with the Teutonic Knights. At Grunwald in July 1410, after one of the most ferocious battles of the Middle Ages, his combined Lithuanian-Polish force won a victory so overwhelming that the Teutonic Order was virtually annihilated, with most of its leaders killed or captured.
The Jagiellonian monarchs would spend the following decades at (mostly victorious) war with their covetous neighbors—the resurgent Teutonic Knights, the Duchy of Prussia, the kingdoms of Bohemia and Hungary, the Grand Duchy of Moscow, and, to the south, the Ottoman Turks and the Crimean Tatars. The latter launched no less than 75 separate incursions between 1474 and 1569. They all just never seemed to learn. Overall, Poland’s kings were able to maintain its borders and influence throughout the dynasty.
More significant and enduring than all those victories were the social and scientific advances under the Jagiellonians. In 1505, the Nihil Novi Act transferred most legislative power from the monarch to the Sejm, a parliament composed of the Polish nobility—a stumbling step towards democracy. Protestant Reformation movements, notably that led by John Hus of Bohemia, made inroads into Polish Catholicism and resulted in the establishment of laws promoting religious tolerance. Renaissance ideals evoked an urge to promote Polish arts and culture by the Jagiellonian kings Sigismund I and Sigismund II. And in 1543, an epochal work claiming a heliocentric model of the solar system was published by the Polish astronomer Nicolaus Copernicus.
Spurred by rampant nationalism, "democratic" precepts, and (a few) concerns about foreign intentions, in June 1569 the Sejm passed an act establishing the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, a unified federal state with an elected monarch—governed primarily by the nobility, through local assemblies and a central parliament. The childless Sigismund II, last of the Jagiellonian dynasty, accepted and signed the act. Although this is credited with instituting a period of stability and prosperity and the spread of Western culture to areas such as the Ukraine and western Russia, the Commonwealth found itself repeatedly embroiled in conflicts with Russia, Sweden, the Ottomans, Cossacks, and other unruly neighbors.
The toll of these wars—notably Poland-Lithuania’s involvement in the Great Northern War, coupled with a succession of weak elected kings—left the nation desperately in need of internal reform. During the middle years of the 18th Century, the Sejm moved to implement commercial, military, social and educational reforms. This effort included the Commission of National Education in 1773, the first state-sponsored education system in Europe, and taught all those peasants to read the Scriptures for themselves. Shortly thereafter, the Polish peasants began to agitate for more rights, and perhaps even a little taste of democracy themselves.
By this time, the Bible was no longer the most common Polish reading material. In the previous centuries, under various high-minded monarchs, a distinctly Polish culture evolved and flourished. Polish authors cranked out all sorts of moody literature and poetry, like the works of Krasicki and Jan Polocki. Although Polish culture was profoundly affected by Germanic, Slavic, Latin and Byzantine threads, a distinct character arose in its architecture, art and dance. But where the Poles really excelled was in music, compelling in its timbre and tone, tempo and texture. Later world-famous Polish composers such as Chopin built their reputations, in part, on the great works of Mielczewski, Oginski, and Szymanowska.
Poland grew wealthy due to its export of agricultural goods. The Commonwealth was by far Europe’s largest producer of grain. As agrarian advances spread, Poland became a major exporter of fruit, spices, herring, fabrics, timber, beer and wine. All this produce was barged along the Vistula, Bug, and Neman rivers to Baltic ports such as Gdansk for shipment on to Flanders and the Netherlands. Overland routes ran deep into the Holy Roman Empire. To keep track of all this wealth, the Sejm had created the zloty as the national currency in 1496. During his reign, Poland's last king King Stanislaw August Poniatowski standardized the zloty in the wake of financial reforms … just in time for the Commonwealth to cease to exist.
Given that all this public spending on reform had emptied the treasury (and thus a way to pay the military), and that the nobles were understandably hesitant to put their lives and fortunes on the line, Poland’s neighbors weren't dissuaded from intervening. In 1772, the First Partition occurred when Russia, Austria and Prussia occupied portions of the country. Following the short Polish-Russian War, Prussia and Russia executed the Second Partition, which stripped Poland of so much territory as to leave it incapable of supporting itself economically or militarily. In 1795 the Third Partition by Austria, Russia and Prussia ceded the nation’s last holdings to these powers and independent Poland ceased to exist.
Following the last partition, Poland disappeared from the pages of history … almost. The Grand Duchy of Poland was resurrected by Napoleon as a free client state of the French Empire. Following Bonaparte’s defeat, it was ripped apart again by Prussia, Austria and Russia. After World War I Poland was reconstituted as a free nation, but had to fight a two-year war against the infant Soviet Union to maintain that freedom. Come 1939, it was divvied up between the erstwhile allies Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia. Reborn once again, it was Communist occupied behind the Iron Curtain. But in the 1990s, Poland was one of the first to take advantage of the rusted curtain to throw off Russian rule, becoming a free nation once more. If nothing else, the Polish people are persistent in their pursuit of self-rule.
Size: Est. 120 thousand square miles (312.6 thousand square km)
Population: 38.5 million (2016 est.)
Capital: Various throughout time (Plock, Poznan, Krakow, Warsaw)
- Polish Winged Hussars are featured in the opening cinematic of Civilization VI.